Trigger warning: talking about eating, bodily fluids and other areas of being ill
Living with a chronic illness is hard work, and exhausting. Unlike an acute illness, where in most cases you can take time out from normal life and spend time just recovering, with a chronic illness you have to try and live life around the illness.
With M.E overexertion causes payback, which is highly unpleasant (increase in symptoms such as pain, nausea and brain fog, and for me it can cause paralysis, extra spasms and severe light and noise sensitivity). Trying to balance between doing as much as possible, to enjoy life as far as I can, without it tipping into doing too much is a delicate balance, and I don’t always get it right. A common technique used by patients with M.E is pacing, which requires figuring out how much activity you can do in a day and how much rest you need. Even trying to monitor my rest and activity levels was doing too much for me, so I can’t do proper pacing. Instead I listen to my body, which is hard as poor body awareness is common in autism and affects me, but I try.
Most of the time I’m not actively thinking about being ill or trying to get better. Distracting myself from the symptoms and the illness is very important to me, and finding ways I can do that without overdoing it is worth the effort. When I’m able to get into the living room in my wheelchair and I can manage with sensory input okay, playing World of Warcraft is my go-to distraction, as the skills it requires are easy for me, I can find things to do in game even when very brain foggy, and I like being able to melt faces or heal people, even if only in game. When I’m stuck in bed but not really ill (for me) then I use my laptop to go on Facebook or maybe watch some easy TV shows on Netflix. When I’m really ill, then my penguins are often my only distraction, along with the occasional glimpses at Twitter on my tablet. Those are hard times.
There’s lots of practical things that being ill makes more difficult. I can’t walk or mobilise independently at all, other than rolling in bed (and even that disappears when I relapse). Sitting up for more than a couple of minutes is a bad idea, which makes lots of things difficult. I can’t make it to the toilet most of the time and it’s not supportive enough for me, so I try and use a commode next to my bed. Each time, I have to figure out if I’m well enough to use it, if I’m well enough to transfer independently or not, if I’m well enough to manage wiping and my clothing. As I’m fiercely independent and don’t like asking for help, I sometimes get this wrong. If I can’t transfer independently, then I fall. If I can’t sit up long enough, I faint. In both cases Johan needs to pick me up and get me back into bed, and being hauled around is quite painful as I can’t help much (or at all if I’m unconscious).
The alternative to the commode is the bedpan. There are downsides to that as well. I need Johan to fetch it for me, and help me get on it. I find it harder to use than the commode, so sometimes can be on it a very long time. As I have no strength to hold myself up, I normally end up sitting in my own waste in it, and need cleaning up by Johan afterwards. It’s exhausting, painful and embarrassing, but peeing isn’t optional (and if I can’t pee, that causes its own problems, like possibly needing to go into hospital).
Eating while ill is also more difficult. I’m constantly nauseous, so I have to work out whether I’m able to eat at all, if I can what foods I can manage, what I fancy eating, whether I can chew properly, how well I can swallow. At the moment eating also causes severe tummy pain (feels like gallstone attacks but my gallbladder was removed 9 years ago so it’s probably not that) so I have to consider how calorie dense it is, as I won’t be able to manage much. Then I have to consider whether I can manage a spoon or fork, whether I can manage finger food, or whether I need Johan to feed me. Lots of thought has to go into the simplest of things. I do have anti-nausea tablets but they make me sleep, so I have to decide when it’s worth taking them or not.
That’s just a couple of areas where being ill make things harder. The planning that needs to go into the smallest things is tiring, and the cost of that has to be taken into account before even planning. A trip out to the shop requires about half an hour of preparation just to get out the door, due to the amount of stuff I need, sorting the wheelchair, helping me with outdoor clothing, and then getting the wheelchair out of the flat. Trips out are infrequent (and not happening at all at the moment) as they require lots of energy and brain power to plan, something which I’m rather lacking right now.
The consequences of not taking the illness into account and working around it are horrendous. Either payback, or if it’s been particularly bad or long lasting, a relapse. I’ve yet to fully recover from any relapse- every one has resulted in a loss of functioning that I haven’t got back. My M.E. was progressive anyway until this year, where it seemed to stabilise a bit apart from the relapses. A relapse is living hell- pain levels that are higher than I could have imagined beforehand (I’ve given birth and had gallstones), complete intolerance to light, sound, and often touch, often being unable to speak, and at the worst times completely paralysed, unable to communicate and hallucinating due to the pain. Some M.E patients are like that all the time, and I pray that they get some relief as I struggled with it for even a few weeks.
Of course, me being this ill and disabled means that Johan has to look after me, so a lot of the hard work goes onto him. I have to rely on him to manage my medication as my brain fog means it’s dangerous (I can’t remember if I’ve taken them or not, so am at risk of taking them again), plus I often can’t hold the tablets so he has to put them in my mouth for me. He has to deal with my toileting needs, no matter how I’m doing it. He’s the one who organises my food when we’ve figured out what I’m going to attempt to eat, who reminds me that I have anti-nausea tablets so I can consider taking them. He helps sorts my pillows and quilt out so I’m as comfortable as possible. He heats up my penguins for me to help with the pain. He holds my hand when I can’t cope with hugs. He spends time just sitting with me when I need company but can’t manage conversation. He repeats things multiple times because I lose track of what he’s saying. He contacts the doctors and everyone for me when I need them. He’s on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as neither of us can predict when I’ll need something. It’s as hard for him as it is for me.